NEW DELHI, India — Lalit Mohan Chawla, a 19-year-old college student, was having doubts about God.
Every classroom had a picture of the late Sathya Sai Baba and every day the teacher forced him to meditate while imagining the guru's benevolent hand resting on his head — all this despite the troubling allegations of sexual misconduct in the guru's past.
The school yoga instructor talked about energy in a way that contradicted everything Lalit read in his science books.
"He said we had to use a [yoga] mat, to prevent our energy from flowing into the earth," Chawla said.
"I felt that was completely stupid. But if you do not bring a mat, you will be spanked. I got spanked once. Not because I refused to bring my mat, because I forgot to bring my mat. I never refused to bring the mat, I never refused to meditate. I mean, who wants a spanking — that's all." Lesson learned.
Years later Chawla is an atheist. And he is not alone.
Spurred by online social networks, atheist and "free thinker" support groups are mushrooming in India's major cities. The groups want to help non-believers — like Chawla, who hasn't told his parents — stick to their convictions in the face of societal pressures. Moreover, they hope to turn atheists into activists.
"We aim to register as a national organization, which requires us to have a presence in a number of states in the country. So, at present we are focused on building regional groups in the major cities," said Ajita Kamal, editor of the website, Nirmukta.com, that has spawned most of India's atheist social networks.
India — where millions throng to the spot where a statue of Ganesha is said to be drinking milk and an absolute faith in God's will trumps every traffic law — is renowned for belief.
But as a recent survey reveals, the Western perception of India's benign, hippie spirituality is a fantasy. Despite 60 years of democracy, India remains one of the world's most repressive societies, according to a global study published in Science last week. And even as political groups routinely use religion to stoke hatred and provoke deadly riots, the constitution and the law seem bent on intertwining — rather than separating — religion and the state.
Longterm, that's what the atheists, or free thinkers, aim to change.
"We want secularism to be defined in this country," said Aarti Tikoo Singh, a member of the Delhi Freethinkers. "So far nobody knows what it means. Everybody assumes that it means I have absolute freedom to religion, and that's how all the communities and individuals play this game. India is now the epitome of religiosity. Globalization has just pushed it even further. It's now a massive industry."
Just living day-to-day as an Indian atheist can be a challenge.
During a chat over coffee with some members of the Delhi Freethinkers, the discussion repeatedly circled back to the risk of falling back into religion to fit in or to please parents. Even those who had openly renounced God for clean, cold logic admitted that sometimes the power that ritual and convention hold over their parents is simply too hard to break.
"Many of us say that it is good to come out. It has helped the gay community. Now everyone is comfortable with gays," Chawla said. "I know I should come out. I know it's good. But I don't. I don't find sense in fighting with my family, arguing with my family all the time. So I compromise."
Even though Singh's parents had accepted her as an atheist, when she got married a few years ago her parents said she couldn't have a civil ceremony. To them, a civil ceremony would would have implied something was not right in the household.
In the end, she agreed to be married with the ceremony of her husband's Sikh faith.
"Their argument was, 'What will the relatives say?'" Singh recalls.
That's a bridge that 22-year-old Aayushi Awasthy has yet to cross, though she says she's resolved that religion won't play a role in her marriage, and she won't accept an arranged match.
She says being an atheist has empowered her in other ways. She has resisted parental pressure to go into teaching over business — which is what she really wants to do. "For me, there's no fear of the unknown," she said. "I'm not scared to go out in the dark."
Six percent of Indians said they had no religion in a recent survey. Still, self-described, out-of-the-closet Indian atheists are few in number — especially compared with the country's enormous population.
Set up in January, for example, the Delhi Freethinkers group has around 95 members (including Chawla) and expects to cross 100 before meeting again next month, while similar groups in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Pune and Kolkata have amassed at most a few hundred more members over the past six months.
But if you pull together older groups of the godless, from India's vibrant communist tradition, for example, and from the various organizations that have focused on exposing the fraudulent "miracles" that charlatan god men use to fleece the poor, it starts to look like scientific rationalism as a belief system is gaining a toe hold.
"Religion is indeed considered part of your identity in India, but that is changing, at least amongst the growing middle class, which is our demographic by virtue of the fact that we're organizing online," said Kamal.
"But we're focused on more than just religion. There are many other areas in which critical thinking and scientific skepticism are needed in India. Indeed, there are many self-identified atheists who gladly buy into illogical and/or pseudoscientific ideas."
To change that, India's new atheists are taking the battle from the masses to the classes, moving beyond the pioneering work that rationalists like Narendra Nayak and Sanal Edamaruku have done to debunk claims made by astrologers, tantriks and god men.
By organizing debates and discussion groups, the new activists aim to raise awareness about atheism — an Indian census taker will still object to writing "not applicable" under religion — among middle-class and wealthy Indians who have never questioned God, fate, or even astrology.
And before the end of the year, the Delhi group hopes to be running programs to teach school children to question and think, rather than accept and memorize.
"Our objective is not to tell others not to believe in God," said 67-year-old Rajesh Kher, who's stuck to his convictions for four decades. "Our goal is to get people to think."